Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The hour we knew nothing of each other By Peter Handke, translated by Meredith Oakes, Lyttelton Theatre, 6-Feb-2008 – Directed by James MacDonald

Before the play started, a man in front of me asked my neighbour (female and better looking) if there was a plot summary for this piece on the free cast list. I was slightly tempted to ask him, after we’d watched the play, whether he’d be able to put one together for future reference. If you want a plot, I suppose it is the comings and goings in a city square throughout a day. What that means is a large number of little vignettes, small stories (comical and tragical), familiar observations of people watching and a nice dollop of weirdness often including some fictional, historical, mythological or biblical figure. And whenever there was a lull in the proceedings one of a number of well put together young women would process across from upstage left to downstage right.
The city square was represented by sculptural, abstracted and slightly organic-looking office buildings around the three sides of the stage.
Describing the play becomes a little like trying to remember the contents of a conveyor as prizes pass in front of you – Actually I can’t remember if there was a cuddly toy, or whether it was a man dressed as a football mascot. Here are a few things that stuck in the mind:
Recurring characters such as a street cleaner (played by Mark Hadfield) who discovers the script for the play that he is in; a hiker (played by Richard Hope) who had constantly to empty sand and stones from his shoes and clothes; an annoying person (played by Jason Thorpe), possibly meant to be a small boy, a grown-up that acted like one or a representation of the spirit of annoyingness who spent his time imitating the actions of passers-by.
A business man emptying the pockets of his suit pulling out strange items until he finds a apple. One of the well put-together young women in a dress made from fragments of mirror and holding a large leaf with an eye-sized hole to cover her face. A looping line of old men, then teachers, then old soldiers made up of the same dozen or so actors. A couple sexually aroused watching a man collapse and die while the annoying man tried to imitate him. Abraham leading Isaac (who was carrying a convenient bush) across the stage, clutching a sacrificial dagger, Papageno getting mugged. A queue that almost spontaneously formed.
While I found this wordless parade highly enjoyable there was still a feeling at the back of my mind that it was all a bit insubstantial. It was like an endless supply of gourmet snacks and treats, while they take as much time and skill to prepare as a normal meal, you get the feeling that there’s a big feast that you are missing. There were so many characters and little stories that I never felt that I got to know any of them well or even at all.



Thursday, February 07, 2008

The Vortex by Noel Coward, Richmond Theatre, 4-Feb-2008, Directed by Peter Hall

So you’ve got this character called Florence Lancaster, she is an ageing actress, afraid of her age and needing desperately to be loved. The problem is that she’s played by Felicity Kendal who, it is widely accepted, is charming and lovely and it’s probably a criminal offence not to like her. All this means that how ever well she manages to convince you that she’s Florence Lancaster (and she is both very convincing and good at it) there’s always this voice at the back of your head (okay my head) that says “but that’s Felicity Kendal – we like Felicity Kendal”. As I’ve said it’s largely in my head and almost certainly doesn’t detract from her performance.

I wasn’t entirely sure about Dan Stevens who played Florence’s son Nicky. He was certainly pretty and vulnerable enough and I wouldn’t complain about his acting but I thought some of the easy-to-parody Coward witticisms (brittle brilliant wit with something nasty ready to break out when thing crack up) weren’t delivered well enough. I could imagine that it might have been that fear of slipping into parody that stopped him from taking pleasure in the language and from saying beautiful things beautifully. Another thing that bothered me was that he seemed to change enormously between the first and second acts. I realise that he is supposed to be reaching a crisis about his drug taking and his relationship with his fiancée is breaking down but in the play it’s only two days later and things don’t start to go wrong until act two.

For some reason this three act play with short peppy acts had two intervals lasting a total of 45 minutes out of the two and a quarter hour running time. I might be argued that the 20 and 25 minute gaps were necessary to move the set but the set had a monumental simplicity about it with free standing doorways and staircases set against long black curtains and with only enough furniture to be useful in the scene. Perhaps we were expected to spend the intervals drinking cocktails and having witty, sophisticated conversations.

I seemed to have missed the mildly suggested lesbian sub-plot in the play when I saw it at the Donmar in 2002 but even here it was gentle and entirely one-sided. Also I realise that people have compared the play’s mother son relationship with the same relationship in Hamlet, but I kept being reminded of the Seagull which I saw Felicity Kendal in a decade ago. It is slightly odd to think that the Seagull was only about 30 years old when Coward wrote this play.

I would also like to mention Mah-Jong which people play off stage during the second act. It is not the tile-matching excrescence that which might be called Mah-Jong on your computer but a game, using the same 144 tiles, which is a cross between Gin Rummy played with three packs of cards and Lego. It is a wonderful game and I encourage you to learn it because it will increase the chances of me finding three other people to play it.



Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov, The Rose, Kingston, 28-Jan-2008, Directed by Peter Hall

Inevitably I’m going to spend most of my time here writing about the theatre. After all it’s new and it was my first time there so I’m probably allowed an opinion. I have to confess that it felt a bit like a rather upscale school assembly hall. There was a suggestion of echoes and feeling of being distant from the stage. I was in the stalls under the cover of the circle so there was also an uncomfortable sensation from being in a low ceilinged area when compared to the height of the rest of the theatre. Perhaps I should have learned from my experiences at Shakespeare’s Globe where if you have to sit it’s best to do so in the middle gallery rather than the ground floor where you see the action through the groundlings. Of course here the groundlings sat quietly and politely but I could still feel how far away the action was. Also unlike at the Globe, the seating curved round in slightly more than a semicircle (almost a three-quarter circle) but the stage wasn’t thrust into the middle (or wasn’t in this case anyway), it was a shallow, very wide, low flat platform at the back of the hall.
There was one striking similarity with the Globe: There are long passages where characters talk to themselves, in a normal theatre these are addressed to the darkness but here (as with the Globe) the speeches stood out as if they were being directed at a real audience (which they were, of course). I remember being rather struck by this, imagining momentarily that this was some invention of the translator (Stephen Mulrine). It may have been my fifth or sixth Uncle Vanya but it felt like it was the first time I was seeing these soliloquies.
Any hope of such high-minded appreciation was slightly spoiled by a near neighbour who developed a fit of the giggles towards the end of the second act. The play was directed in such a way to allow people to laugh occasionally (didn’t Chekhov always called his plays comedies) but this woman went too far. Any miss-mouthed line, slipped prop or potential double meaning in the script was treated with loud laughter which removed any hope of concentration. My near neighbour calmed down after the interval which is when I noticed that a couple of the actors seemed to have developed an attack of ‘the hands’. Every emphasis suddenly seemed to be accompanied by manual flourishes which, in reality, were probably just noticeable rather than silly butit didn’t stop me smiling a bit.
As I felt a bit too distanced I didn’t feel as connected and/or electrified, as I sometimes have, by the play. I liked everyone’s performances and I seem to have seen Michelle Dockery in a few things before (Dying for It at the Almeida and the UN Inspector at the National to name two) without noticing her which was probably a grave error. I didn’t think Neil Pearson was sexy enough (of course I am probably the wrong sex or sexual persuasion) but I did find his character’s slightly nerdy interest in trees and wildlife much more believable – these things are probably connected



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